White Balance. A stylistic choice.

This is a story of two halves. One where you need to be 100% objective and shoot what something is, not what you think it is. And another half where I’ll hopefully explain how you can manipulate the white balance to work for you in shoots to set the mood.

Every now and then I shoot clothing for catalogues and magazines: it could be editorial pieces, it could be items photographed on a mannequin, then cutout and then laid-up in the pages of a magazine. The accurate reproduction of colours is absolutely crucial to this work. If the orange is more saffron than mango or if the red is more cranberry than scarlet then someone won’t be happy and when companies depend on you to shoot their stuff correctly and accurately you have to make sure you’re white balance (WB) is on point. I did a little test today in my backyard using camera WB, Lightroom WB and a grey card bought from AliExpress for $2 (on the lanyard) to determine which method made the most accurate representation of the colours as seen by my eyes.

For transparency I shot this same frame 3 times over about 8 seconds. The sun was out, but I’m shooting below a deck in the shade. I grabbed some items lying around (namely my wallet, some clothes pegs, a Baduzzi business card, a copy of A Dance of Dragons and a box of D’Addario 11 gauge strings). The first pic was just straight up AWB in camera, the second was AWB but I added in the lanyard grey card/WB checker, and the third is the same pic shot again. So 3 images, all calibrated in different ways. All shot in Auto, exposure comp +/- 0 so right in the middle. ISO 400, something like f/8 on a 24-70 L.

Here’s the pics and results:

1st image.

Auto WB from camera

Auto WB from camera

2nd image = Lightroom auto setting

Lightroom Auto WB

Lightroom Auto WB

3rd Image = Using grey card calibration in Lightroom. WB came back as 10500k with a tint of -11.

wb check (3 of 4)

The third image is much more lifelike and is definitely much more accurate than the other two which are relying on software to judge the WB of a scene. It might be a little hot, but I think dropping the saturation to about -5 will be the final touch. For $2, that little thing is a great addition to any bag. You put it next to the subject, or under the same lighting conditions as your subject, take a pic with it in the frame and you can use that WB reading for the entire shoot. In Lightroom, or Camera Raw, or Photoshop you can use the eyedropper thing to click the card itself. It’s the same size of 3 credit cards and the lanyard is detachable. You can also spot meter off the grey card to get a precise exposure of a scene too.

I’m not trying to say it’s the single most precise piece of calibrating equipment known to mankind. It isn’t. It cost $2 shipped to my door, but for a much closer representation than the camera can get by itself, it’s money well spent. I actually have a second one coming in the mail from a different seller, basically to check for any discrepancies between manufacturing and also because then I can leave one in my camera bag and have another in my travel backpack.

But that’s about technicals where the subjective opinion isn’t required. It’s about fair and accurate representation.

There is a flip-side to the technical and precise aspect which is more psychological in nature, which reminds me of a conversation I was having with a videographer friend of mine about the uses of WB for a subtle psychological element to your photos (or video).

White Balance basically tells the camera the colour temperature of a scene. It’s something we all come into contact with daily, and colour temperature basically means the colour of the light. Light at sunset, all crimson and gold, is much different sitting under a cold harsh floursecent tube. It’s all light, but it’s different colours… or differing colour temperatures as they say in the biz. Interior designers have been playing with colour temps for years and now some lightbulbs (like the Philips Hue) can adjust their own colour temperature during the day so it’s bluer in the mornings, white in the day, and a warm orange in the evening to closer match the natural rhythms of sunset and sunrise. Pretty cool.

As you may know, I shoot a lot of bands. Mostly of the metal persuasion. I also shoot a lot of people on location for magazines and commercial clients – the white balance settings for these 2 avenues of photography are different. Essentially I shoot metal bands or badass stuff with a cooler white balance leaning towards the blues. Why? Because then it looks cold, bleak, skin tones don’t look warm and happy, the whole world looks like Mordor and I typically shoot this with a white balance setting around 4000-5000K. Portraits I generally shoot warmer at around 6000k or so (k = kelvin, that’s the measurement of white balance).

Examples. Here’s a picture of renowned fashion designer Turet Knuefermann, who owns and runs the TK label. This was shot for M2 Woman magazine.



I knew I wanted to shoot this so it looked warm and friendly. Professional and welcoming just like TK herself. This was shot in TK’s store in Ponsonby with morning light streaming in where it bounced around the shops white walls. Auto WB in camera rendered this whole scene pretty blue to make her white shirt actually white, but in photography sometimes it’s more about the mood and feeling than being technically correct. Because I wanted it to be warm and all the things I listed above I raised the white balance in camera to around 6200k. The pluses of this are a great healthy looking skin tone, a nice tint to the highlights and it’s generally very flattering. The cons are that if you’re not careful it can just make someone look orange and completely overpower the scene so you have to watch that. I shoot a lot of portraiture like this when someone needs to look like a decent human and it works great for bright scenes as well as corporate photography.

And then there’s this shot, which I shot for Auckland metal stalwarts Dawn of Azazel:

A little bit different. This was shot at around 4500k and the saturation dropped. Instead of the warm glowing tanned skin tones and softly tinted glowing highlights looking all warm and lovely, we have the opposite. Cold, bleak, dark, harsh. The skintones don’t glow. There’s no softness. Like the band it’s unforgiving and unapologetic. There’s a blue tint to the shadows to further emphasise the ‘coldness’ and you can get away with way more contrast and crunching the midtones on colder desaturated images. Again, while this isn’t technically correct in terms of WB, it helps to portray the subject in the shot which is what this is all about and the white balance is just another arrow in the quiver to use on a shoot when a stylistic angle might work.

You can skew the white balance a million ways to enhance the feel you’re aiming for. Shooting a sunset? Ramp up the WB to 11000k. Shooting a dingy alleyway? Have a go at 4000k and roll back the saturation.

Here’s another set of examples. One shot of some rocks in the morning sun, the other on the banks of the Ganges river in Varanasi, India. One is cold and dark, the other warm and light. Again to make a subconscious impression we all recognise without recognising why.

Puja. Varanasi, India.

Puja. Varanasi, India.




For further reading/listening check out Guillermo Del Toro’s commentary talking about Pan’s Labyrinth: the scenes are split between two worlds and the colour palette dramatically shifts to psychologically set the mood of those two worlds. One is blue and green, long shadows and muted colours; the other is reds and coppers, soft dappled light and strong warm tints. Once you see this type of stylisation in one film you see it everywhere. Like in Lord of the Rings – the difference between the Shire and on the flanks of Mt Doom. And Aliens, it’s all cool tones, hard light and muted colours.

So… white balance. It’s a tool. Use it to alter the mood of your shots and make a stylistic choice.

Remember higher numbers = warm, lower numbers = cold.